From Chapter 8. Being in Your body
In this and the following chapters, there is a short overview - a sort of recipe - of the basic structure of the meditation at the end of each guiding. For the adventurous reader, this means that you can cook up your own version of each meditation. Seasoned meditators may prefer to just read the guidings and cherry-pick the parts that they are drawn to, while others - and many who are beginning to explore meditation - will prefer the sound files. You can of course also mix and match transcripts, recordings and recipes as you please or use them as an inspiration for your own personal or professional work. Whatever you choose, I hope you will find it useful to have these different options.
Engaging different levels of ourselves in meditation
It is worth noting again that all meditations train conscious attention, and that conscious attention is a prefrontal skill. Just to give you a short recap from chapter 3: The basic ability to choose to pay attention - rather than having our attention captured - begins to develop around the age of 1 year. Somewhere between the age of 2 and 4, we develop the ability to use symbols, so that we can imagine that a banana is a mobile phone that we can use to have conversations with imaginary friends. During the next years, our imaginative skills can even expand into elaborate fantasy worlds - perhaps cops and robbers or dragons and heroes - that we share with others in pretend play. Slowly, we develop the ability to coordinate our play impulses and imagination with those of other children to create even better games. Finally, usually around the age of 6-8, our brains mature to the level where we can use our imagination to create an inner model of what we look like through the eyes of others, what it is like to be another person or even to find an inner ‘witness’, a more objective perspective of ourselves and others. All of these levels of prefrontal attention are sometimes called mindfulness.
When we get to the first meditations, we will begin, as most meditative practices do, with the most basic kind of attention, noticing what our senses tell us - information from the body and the autonomic nervous system. Those of us in the helping professions that try to integrate the body are also focused on this. However, this can be done in many different ways, and the most common way to do it is by training the ability to control attention, which is a much subtler and more advanced thing to control. In chapter 3, we called it the sixth level of development: a witnessing capacity.
Consider this classic meditation instruction: “Notice your breathing. Whenever you notice your mind wandering, just bring it back to the breath.” This instruction works with the connection between your basic prefrontal attention and inner body sensations coming from your body and organized in your parietal cortex. However, this basic attention is coupled with a subtle control instruction: “… bring your mind back to the breath”. This is much harder to do than, for instance: “Notice your breathing. Now, take a deep breath and hold it … now let go. Notice how your body feels now.” This instruction focuses on basic awareness and willed control of movement, which we learn in the beginning of our second year, while the ability to control our attention develops several years later. The ability to be reasonably quiet and pay attention to inner impulses and feelings when we would rather be talking or running around and playing is a pretty advanced skill. As a therapist, as soon as you ask an adult client or a child (or yourself, for that matter) to pay attention to internal sensations and keep on doing it, you are working with this somewhat advanced prefrontal level: a verbal request or instruction to be followed. If you are fortunate enough to be working with a client or child who has good control - or perhaps even a harmonious connection between the prefrontal to the autonomic levels - this will work out. With many of the most vulnerable or distracted children or adults, you won’t be that lucky and it won’t work out - they are not ready to develop or strengthen that skill. Playing with movement and body sensations together or going for a walk together and exploring interesting things that you see on the way will fit such a developmental learning zone of much better. Sharing with each other what your attention is spontaneously drawn to will activate the playful limbic level along with the earlier prefrontal basic attention. Not everyone is ready to learn and mature at the later prefrontal levels, no matter what age they have or how much they would like to.
After we develop the basic ability to pay attention (but before we develop the ability to control our attention instead of getting distracted), imagination is our next developing prefrontal skill. Many meditations use images and visualizations, just as we will be doing in some of the meditations to come. Imagination can be enormously helpful. We just need to have some clarity about when we are doing what. To use the developmental levels from chapter 3 again - are we using third-level basic attention skills, fourth-level creative imagination or sixth-level witnessing capacity? Once I was listening to a lecture about the importance of being fully present in the here-and-now. After 20 minutes, the inspiring speaker started a guiding with us, and we all settled in anticipation. He began: “Imagine that you are walking on a beautiful, sandy beach in the sunset. Feel the sand between your toes and the wind on your skin. . . .”, and so on. It was a wonderful, inspiring and relaxing guiding, and it had absolutely nothing to do with my actual, physical “here and now” sensations of sitting in a conference chair and breathing the air-conditioned air along with a few hundred other conference participants. Instead, it gave all of us conference participants a lovely shared fantasy journey. I was expecting a guiding in sixth-level witnessing - and what we got was fourth-level creative imagination.
Creative imagination is wonderful - and we can use it to expand our awareness by offering inner alternatives or even training them. For instance, when we are sad, we can practice connecting to a memory of a time when we were happy (and by the way, your memory is another form of imagination), ‘dropping into’ the inner experience of it. We can also use imagination to expand a current experience. For instance, when attending to our breathing, as we feel the air moving in and out with each breath, we can imagine the air surrounding us in the room and in the outdoor spaces around us. When we bring our attention back to our breath, this inner change in our mental ‘frame’ will often expand and change the sensations of our breathing.
Our deeper music is not tame
Despite the fact that meditative practices and many psychotherapies tend to start with the body, the deeper music of the somatic and autonomic systems is frequently overlooked in meditating, as well as in awareness instructions that work with ‘just’ paying deep attention. Going deeper means reconnecting with your most basic inner space on its terms - in other words, surfing your spontaneous autonomic arousal shifts and experience of pleasure and/or discomfort. Everything influences this level. How you pay attention to it - your prefrontal attention - influences it. For a moment, imagine this part of you (here comes imagination again) as a kind of wild and wordless animal that lives inside of you. If the way you pay attention to it creates discomfort, it responds with restlessness, contraction or passivity. If you relate to animals in your daily life, particularly if they are wild, feral or just not very tame, or if you work with very wounded adults or children, you will probably have noticed that they may respond to focused attention as if it is a threat, a signal of a possible attack. Less obviously, your own autonomic nervous system may respond to your focused attention in the same way. A relaxed, unfocused form of attention is less likely to trigger this.
In the following meditations I will often be inviting you to drop into such a less focused, more global and relaxed attention, a form of attention that is designed to not do anything. This is often hard for us Westerners, because our socialization and schooling teach us a package deal: pay attention, control our actions and sit still. From age 2 and up, more and more emphasis is placed on these skills. This means that our attention is usually trained with the intention to act or to control impulses. If you long to drop deeper into meditation or into your aliveness, the first step is to notice this small contraction in your awareness as you focus.
Take a moment to do that now.
Now, do you remember how it feels to be awake when you are just waking up in the morning? In the beginning, you are not very awake. Then you wake up some more. At some point in time, you are awake enough that your attention goes to a project, such as getting up and going to the bathroom or drinking tea or coffee … Somewhere in the middle, between very sleepy and awake enough to have a project, can you remember the feeling of an inner space like that? This - maybe tiny - moment of inner space, this moment of transition is a good starting point for the kind of attention we are aiming for. My spiritual teacher, Jes Bertelsen, has a simple and lovely way of describing this. He says, "We all know how to fall asleep. What we're learning here is how to fall awake."
When we begin to try to fall awake, we may discover that it is hard work, the work of unlearning the way we usually do things. We begin with focusing on the task, so we are literally working to relax. The inner whispered dialogue might go something like this: "Okay, I will now relax and pay careful attention at the same time. This is really hard. No wait, it’s not supposed to be hard! I have to concentrate on relaxing, I have to relax, I have to . . .” For many people it seems to be easier to relax first, letting your mind be distracted and fuzzy, and then asking for a bit of attention - if you remember. Another trick that is taught in many schools of meditation is to honor the moment where we discover that we are distracted - during that second we are fully in the present, and in the next moment we may be busy again, getting upset with ourselves about distractions, trying to get better control of our attention and so on. I have found that this mental turbulence can be reduced by paying more attention to transitions in activity. As anyone who works with children will know, transitions are actually not easy – they require large shifts in our neural networks, and it takes a lot of practice to shift attention fully from one activity to another. At the same time, transitions are always an essential part of integration. So, our next topic is a transition meditation.
A meditation of transition - how touch, movement impulses, and yawning can help you
Every time you sit or stand or lie down to meditate, it is useful to begin with noticing what your body feels like and wants at that moment - not just to observe it but to follow some of your somatic impulses. Usually, they are very simple. Here is a version of a meditative guiding for that. As you continue to read, feel free to take a bit of time to quietly explore the feeling in each instruction. No hurry. A lovely anecdote out of Africa has it that when we move quickly, we leave our souls behind. Souls move at a gracious pace. After hurrying we must rest, so our soul has time to catch up.
Find a comfortable position, sitting on a chair or on the floor; or, if this works better for you, lying down, standing or walking slowly.
Give yourself some time and space now … close your eyes and yawn … and rub your face.
Notice if your feet want to be rubbed, too.
And notice if your shoulders have kind of crawled upwards.
If they have, help them by lifting them as high as you can.
And then, on the next exhale, relax them … and yawn.
We have no goal right now, so if a part of your body wants to stretch, go with that, and if it just wants to keep moving in some way, explore that. If yawns keep coming, keep yawning.
Yawning will often make your eyes and nose water. If you need to blow your nose, blow your nose.
When you exhale, particularly if you have just had a nice yawn ... but actually anytime you exhale, like right now ... just see if you can relax into it…
Don't worry about the in-breath right now.
Just notice how your out-breath feels … it's a little bit different each time.
As you drop more deeply into that ... other body impulses will show up and then you let your awareness follow those … perhaps your face will want to be rubbed again or you will want to blow your nose again … perhaps there is an impulse to rock back and forth or move a little bit. You are dropping into an attitude of discovering, as you breathe one breath after another, what your body asks for in this moment … and as you drop into that ... sometimes a drifting quality emerges.
It's the mind relaxing, just let it. Just keep discovering that next exhale, the one that's happening right now.
How does it feel? Where do you notice it in your body?
Every exhale is a small invitation from life. An invitation to relax, to surrender.
It's also a game. It's a game that takes us beyond something that we all started to learn when we were two years old. We've all learned to focus on something and to control it at the same time.
We've all learned that attention means effort.
Now we are going to play with letting go of some of that effort. Each breath invites you to have another kind of attention, a light and floppy kind of attention … perhaps a melting kind of attention … or a floating kind of attention.
We're not used to it, so after a while we go back to what we are used to. We start efforting and focusing.
When that happens, just take a moment to stretch again ... or move or yawn ... or rub a part of your body that needs rubbing ... until you are drawn to feel a few exhales again …. just resting in them.
If you want to take one more step in playing with this ... you can open your eyes and look at the floor or the flowers or something in the surroundings that catches your gaze … and keep dropping towards relaxed, effortless, floppy attention.
Just playing with relaxing, surrendering into your outbreath, while you are looking at the floor. And if you like, you can also close your eyes again so that you gently shift between open and closed eyes.
When your eyes are open, softly look around … still with the surrender, relaxation in each out breath.
So, how does it feel right now to exhale and relax into your surroundings?
It can be anything… pleasant or unpleasant. Maybe you feel impatient or you need to pee ... or it can feel wonderful and relaxing ... or many other things.
And now it's time to transition. This usually creates a flurry of inner reorganization, but this time, just keep relaxing with it and notice how your system by itself begins to prepare for going about your next task or activity. Play with shifting your attention between this deep inner ease and the spontaneous movement outwards.
Give yourself time to come out in a way where you don't lose your inner space. This likely involves shifting a few times between more inward and more outward attention, as you engage more and more with your next activity.
As you come out of the meditation and go about your day, see if you can - once in a while - revisit this relaxed state that you have been exploring.